It is customary in German-speaking countries to perform Wagner’s Parsifal on Good Friday, so it was quite a bold move for the Semperoper in Dresden to put on Tannhäuser instead, especially in Peter Konwitschny’s strongly anti-Christian production. German opera director Peter Konwitschny is a household name in Germany, especially for his Wagner productions in Hamburg, Munich, Stuttgart and elsewhere, but as far as I am aware, his work rarely seen in the UK (his production of Nono’s Al gran sole for Hanover was seen at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival). His productions are known for controversial reinterpretations, often even changing the composer’s stage instructions, so I was fully prepared to be shocked.

© Matthias Creutziger
© Matthias Creutziger

On this viewing, however, I found this Tannhäuser production, first seen at the Semperoper in 1997, not overtly controversial, although it has its moments, especially towards the end. In fact, what impressed me most was Konwitschny’s ability to create real dramatic tension between the characters, and more importantly, to do this without compromising the music – his placing of the singers on stage not only dictated by the dynamics of the characters, but always seemed to take in consideration the balance of the voices. This I find is something often neglected by many “concept-opera” directors. In this sense, Konwitschny is fundamentally a singer-friendly director.

Impressively, all the singers in this production, with the exception of the renowned Wagnerian tenor Stephen Gould in the title role, were the Ensemble members of the Semperoper. It may lack the starry cast of Vienna or Covent Garden, but the German system of maintaining a group of principal singers who sing a variety of roles throughout the season helps create a natural rapport between the singers which is essential in Wagner.

Of the cast, the American soprano Marjorie Owens singing the role of Elisabeth stood out for the richness of her timbre, the ease in projection as well as the sincerity of her expression. On the other hand, Tichina Vaughn’s portrayal of Venus, with her wide vibrato, seemed a bit of a caricature although she brought out more personality in Act III. Stephen Gould is a highly experienced and dependable Tannhäuser with amazing vocal stamina, and he sang with plenty of ardour and passion. Wolfram von Eschenbach was sung by Christoph Pohl and if his “Abendstern” aria did not have quite the charisma of Christian Gerhaher at Covent Garden last December, he played the crucial role in the last scene with genuine emotion. The Landgraf was sung authoritatively by Michael Eder.

The most controversial and surprising part of Konwitschny’s production was in Act III. Elisabeth, instead of bidding farewell to Wolfram and dying off stage, commits suicide in Wolfram’s arms. When Tannhäuser returns from Rome in the following scene, Wolfram covers her body with his cloak and subsequently as he tries to stop Tannhäuser from being lured back to Venus he reveals Elisabeth’s body (Curiously, at this point Venus doesn’t disappear as usual and she takes Elisabeth’s body into her arms). At the end, Tannhäuser also commits suicide, and Wolfram leaves them both and walks away as the chorus praises God. This is obviously a strongly anti-Chistian take on the story – that there is no salvation from God – and this was also clearly symbolised by the almost casual and sometimes offensive use of the cross which became rifles, swords, and the knife with which Elisabeth and Tannhäuser committed suicide. One may say that this interpretation gives more universality to the opera in our modern age.

The costumes, by Ines Hertel, were mainly in a vaguely period style, although the sirens in the Venusberg scene had vivid orange/red and green dresses which seemed to hint at the Flower Maidens of Parsifal. Hartmut Meyer’s set design was imaginative and spectacular: the Venusberg scene was set on a shell-shaped apparatus (perhaps a reference to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus?) and great hall of Wartburg was represented by an amazing staircase which gave spatial grandeur to the scene.

Lastly but not least, the Dresden Staatskappelle orchestra conducted by the venerable Peter Schneider was at the heart of the whole production. Wagner’s Tannhäuser was first performed in Dresden in 1845 and although that opera house burnt down in 1869, the legacy lives on in this orchestra (I should note that this production is based on the latter Paris/Viennese version). Its unique, well-blended sound is handed down the generations and especially the woodwinds, playing with less vibrato, created such a pure and sonorous ensemble in the third act. The harpist also deserved special mention. Peter Schneider, a prominent Wagner interpreter and a regular at Bayreuth, paced the music perfectly, and his balance of the voice and orchestra was exemplary. This is musically and spatially an ideal opera house to enjoy Wagner.